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At the White House and among Senate Democrats, the feeling Monday was of guarded optimism, as they sensed Jewish objection to Hagel has significantly subsided. “At the end of the day,” said another White House official, “it seems as if folks walked up to the abyss, looked over, and decided that it is something they will not go to the mat for.”
The officials acknowledged, however, that confirmation hearings will be tough and that Hagel will be questioned on his views regarding Iran, Israel and Hamas. Hagel himself already launched his damage control campaign with an interview to the Lincoln Journal Star in which he vowed to “set the record straight” and to fight “falsehoods and distortions” about his record. He argued that there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli.”
But the battle is far from being over. While the Jewish mainstream may have chosen a practical route of avoiding public criticism in order to ensure future relations with Hagel, groups on the right and left ends of the community are still deeply involved in the fight. Hagel has won ringing endorsements from J Street and Americans for Peace Now as well as a cautious and somewhat belated show of support from the National Jewish Democratic Council.
On the right, attacks on Hagel nomination only intensified following Obama’s formal announcement. Leading the pack were the Republican Jewish Committee and the Emergency Committee on Israel, which launched a website dedicated to taking on Hagel because of his positions regarding the Middle East.
“Tell your Senator Chuck Hagel is too extreme to be Secretary of Defense,” the Emergency Committee urges its supporters, conveniently offering a link with the senators’ contact information and suggested talking points, including: “Hagel’s history of making reckless, anti-Semitic and anti-gay remarks have drawn overwhelming fury from Jewish and gay-rights groups.”
“It is OK for Jewish groups to say they have concerns, but what they shouldn’t do is say that he is disqualified because one comment or another,” said Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at the Ploughshares Fund and a supporter of Hagel’s nomination. He noted, however, that an open discussion during the confirmation hearing on Hagel’s views on Israel should bring him to clarify his views.
“If done in a constructive way, they’ll have the ear of the next secretary of defense,” Rubin said.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman